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Creating a desert butterfly garden

Back yard bird watching is a favorite activity of desert dwellers, since so many species visit warm climates during the winter. Many landscape plants are selected because they attract birds. Another way to bring colorful, living visitors to your home is planting a butterfly garden. The best part is, you can bring some of the 250 southwest butterfly species to your yard by using desert natives and desert adapted plants, which do not need as much water as non-desert plants.

What do Butterflies like?

Butterflies like plants with colorful flowers. White flowers do not seem to interest them. In general, they need flowers that are easy to sit on, so they don’t pick tubular flowers like hummingbirds do, they like them flat. But like hummingbirds, they do feed on nectar. To attract and keep butterflies, you need not only flowers, but plants for caterpillar food. This way you are attracting them for their whole life cycle. The more variety you have, the more different kinds of butterflies you will see. Some butterflies are very fussy and pick only certain kinds of plants, while others don’t care much. For the widest variety of visitors, plant a wide variety of plants.

Plants to Attract Caterpillars

Plants to include in your butterfly garden include the following:

  • Pine-leaf milkweed (Asclepias linaria)
  • Narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias subulata)
  • Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberose
  • Fern acacia (Acacia angustissima)
  • Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
  • Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  • Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa)
  • Green spangletop (Leptochloa dubia)
  • Goosefoot (Chenopodia fremontii)
  • Saltbush (Atriplex elegans)

Flowering Plants to Attract Butterflies

Your butterfly garden can have just flowering butterfly attracting plants, or a combination of both caterpillar food plants and plants with flowers. Butterfly magnet plants include:

  • Kidneywood (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa)
  • Bee bush (Aloysia gratissima)
  • Lantana species (Lantana camara, Lantana montevidensis)
  • Red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)
  • Butterfly mist (Ageratum corymbosum)
  • Black dalea (Dalea pulchra)

Planting your Butterfly Garden

Fall is the best time to plant desert native plants or seeds. The November rains, cooler days and nights trigger germination of seeds, and while the air may be cooler the soil is still warm, encouraging root establishment. This is important for plants to make it through the first summer.

Finding Seed Sources

Many of the plants mentioned above are desert natives, and may be hard to find. Do not harvest seeds or plants from the desert; check online for sources, or find a local nursery specializing in native desert plants.